by Claire Wheeler, MD, PhD & Katherine Grill, PhD
It’s long been known that mental health can affect a student’s academic performance and ability to reach graduation, whether in high school or college (Pascoe et al., 2020). Due to the COVID pandemic, student mental health has suffered as young people had to make a radical shift away from the classroom and into remote learning. The consequences of this “lost year” could persist for years, if not decades.
Since the outbreak of COVID, several studies have been published documenting the rise in mental health symptoms and stress levels among students. Others have examined the impact of these challenges on academic performance and retention in school. To highlight the relationship between mental health and academics, the authors present a brief summary in this paper.
The Lasting Impact of COVID on Student Mental Health
Student health and wellness centers at schools across the United States are chronically underfunded and understaffed. While demand for services has risen 40% over the past five years, overall enrollment has only increased 5% (Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 2018). Challenges over the past year have brought this inadequacy to light, resulting in calls for more funding and resources to address both preexisting needs as well as the urgent needs posed by the pandemic. A recent survey of college and university presidents found that student mental health is their “top concern”, as 40% of undergraduate students have a mental health condition (Fullmer et al., 2021).
While COVID has brought student mental health to the center stage, it’s important to state that mental health challenges among students were rising well before the pandemic. A survey of 275 college counseling center administrators published in 2014 found that in the five years previous, all of the following conditions increased by over 50%: anxiety disorders, crises requiring immediate response, psychiatric medication issues, and clinical depression. Other disorders on the rise included learning disabilities (up by 47%), sexual assault (up by 43%) and self-injury issues (35% increase) (Gallagher, 2014).
The same survey revealed that of the 125 students who committed suicide in 2013, 86% had never sought assistance from their college counseling center. Most of those students killed themselves with a firearm (Gallagher, 2014).
A major barrier that prevents students from seeking help for mental health is stigma (Fullmer et al., 2021). Stigma can be life-threatening given that in 2016, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) reported 21% of college students seeking services were doing so because of suicidal ideation (Reetz et al., 2016). While Gen Z reports less stigma than previous generations, it’s a fallacy to think that they aren’t affected by stigma. In focus groups conducted by Neolth with over 200 high school and college students throughout 2020 and 2021, nearly all students stated stigma exists at their schools.